Sunday, May 03, 2015

Get Smart: "The Impossible Mission"

Would you believe...that fifty years later, Get Smart (1965 - 1970) is still pretty damned funny?

This classic TV series from creators Buck Henry and Mel Brooks arrived on American television (first NBC, then CBS) at the height of the James Bond/secret agent craze of the mid-1960s. 

On television, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible ruled the air-waves, and Get Smart was a response to the fad, a situation comedy about the world's dopiest spy: Agent 86, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) of CONTROL.

Max's job was to battle the evil forces of K.A.O.S., and he did so with his partner, the beautiful and highly capable Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), plus the latest and strangest gadgets imaginable, including the ubiquitous shoe phone.  

Max's put-upon boss was The Chief (Edward Platt), and Smart also occasionally teamed with Agent 13 (Dave Ketchum), an undercover expert who would hide in the most unusual places -- including filing cabinets and tree trunks -- and Hymie (Dick Gautier), a kindly robot who had escaped from K.A.O.S. control.

To my generation, the oft-repeated gags on Get Smart have become legendary, particularly the shoe phone, and The Cone of Silence.  The latter, as you may recall, was a top-secret device to promote security and secrecy, but which never operated as it was intended.  

Don Adam's catchphrases, many of which originated on an earlier program, The Bill Dana Show (1963 - 1965) are also well known even today: 

"Sorry about that, chief," "Would you believe...," "I asked you not to tell me that!" and, of course,  "missed it by that much..."

My favorite of Max's catchphrases, however is the one that he used frequently to cover his own profound ignorance. 

Whenever Max was confronted with a new and deadly K.A.O.S. gambit, he would feign prior knowledge of it and quip, "Of course, the old poison needle in the phonograph trick," or "the old biplane hidden in the haystack trick."

Get Smart's "The Impossible Mission," which first aired on September 21, 1968, also showcases one of Get Smart's must entertaining proclivities: to parody elements of (then) popular entertainment.  Over the course of the program's five year duration, Smart battled a villain called Dr. Yes, for instance, joined up with bikers in "The Mild One," satirized Britain's The Avengers ("Run, Robot Run,") and so on.  Here, as the title makes plain, Mission: Impossible gets mercilessly riffed.

As the episode commences, Maxwell Smart visits a bus depot to receive his orders from a tape recorder hidden in a locker.  The Chief's recorded voice informs him that his mission is to recover an equation for "Helmunitis" -- a disease that can cause the extinction of the human race -- before "The Leader," a K.A.O.S. mastermind, can acquire it. 

At the end of the message, The Chief dutifully informs Max that the tape recording will self-destruct in five seconds. 

But six seconds later, there is a massive explosion that destroys several lockers. 

Yet the tape recorder is still whole and undamaged,  and it begins to loudly replay the secret message over and over again. 

At a loss, Max stomps on the recorder, to no avail.  Then he bashes it with a stick.  Then, giving up, Max attempts to tuck the still-yammering tape recorder under his jacket and leave the depot unnoticed...

After Max assembles his team, rejecting Alfred E. Newman, Tiny Tim, and the Mona Lisa as prospective candidates (another great riff on another trademark Mission: Impossible scene), he learns from an informant (Jamie Farr) that the equation he seeks will be transmitted over live TV during a nighttime special featuring a band called Herb Talbot and the Tijuana Tin. 

Using a self-playing "computer trumpet," Max infiltrates the musical act, even as 99 joins the show as a chorus singer.  All of the chorus, incidentally, is dressed as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

Soon, Max and 99 are discovered, and the Leader attempts to kill them.  The duo escapes in Little Tramp costumes, and Get Smart suddenly indulges in a lively, fast-motion salute to silent film comedy tradition. 

Before "The Impossible Mission" ends, Max proposes marriage to the love of his life, 99.  They then foil the Leader's plans together and defeat him by using "The old double door deception trick," which is actually pretty nifty, though I doubt Daniel Craig will be using it any time soon.

Finally Max offers a thoughtful requiem for the Leader.  "If only he had used his music for niceness instead of evil."

Yes Max, if only....

Watching Get Smart in 2015, it came as a shock to me just how much contemporary self-reflexive comedies such as The Simpsons or South Park owe this particular series. 

Get Smart confidently bounces from pop-culture allusion to pop-culture allusion with a sly, ingenious sense of fun that is widely emulated.  The gags come at lightning fast speed too, so that even if there's one that can't stick a landing, you're onto the next funny joke before you know it.  The many silly catchphrases serve as our point of identification or foundation in a free-wheeling format that bends and stretches, but never breaks

Yet even with a commendably fast pace and Adams rat-a-tat, staccato delivery (called "glicking," officially), Get Smart remains endearing because Adams and Feldon share a lot of chemistry.  Max fancies himself the world's most suave and debonair secret agent, and 99's tolerant, long suffering reply is universally, "Oh Max..."   Max and 99 (and Adams and Feldon in the respective roles) make for a charming, fun-to-watch couple.

I didn't see the 2008 Get Smart film so I can't comment knowledgeably on it, but I grew up with this version of the material and  so was pleasantly surprised, on recent viewing to see that it has grown up with me, as well.  Get Smart is still fresh and still funny.

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